Déjà View: Sorority Row

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2017-08-19 19:15
Welcome back to Déjà View, where this week we're taking a double stroll down sorority row as school goes back into session.

The House on Sorority Row (1983)

One of the more unsung 80s slashers, The House on Sorority Row kind of feels like a band whose tunes are familiar but are so good you don’t really care. Released in 1983, Mark Rosman’s slasher didn’t exactly bring anything new to the table but instead refined the tropes and sensibilities of its immediate forbearers. The familiar college trappings, a prank gone wrong, a horrible secret being locked away—all of these would have been well worn territory by contemporary audiences, which perhaps explains why it didn’t quite gain the same traction as its slasher brethren. It’s too bad, too, since The House on Sorority Row does this stuff just about as well as any of them, save for the truly elite ranks of the genre. From its fun cast (headed by Katherine McNeill) to its distinguished slashing (it boasts the best severed-head-in-a-toilet gag among films meeting that very specific criteria), it separates from the pack through sheer competence, which isn’t to be underestimated with slashers.

As the girls of Theta Pi look to bid farewell after graduation, they’ve planned an epic party at their sorority house, much to the dismay of house mother Mrs. Slater (Lois Kelso Hunt), a cantankerous old woman who isn’t much for their shenanigans. In fact, she goes so far as to literally bust up a tryst by busting one of the girls’ waterbeds. Vowing revenge, the slighted Vickie organizes a prank involving a gun loaded with blanks, but it all goes horribly awry when Mrs. Slater is actually shot, forcing the girls to wrap up her body and hide it in their grimy pool. When the festivities begin, they’re all haunted both figuratively and literally once someone—or something—begins to murder them one by one.

What jumps out to you about The House of Sorority Row is how measured and atmospheric it is. Rightfully or not, slashers are usually associated with a sort of glibness that this one resists. This is not to say it’s truly scary, but it is a bit more affecting than a lot of hack-and-slash, at least in the sense that these girls (well, some of them) really did just fuck up. None of them are portrayed to be so over-the-top terrible as to invite audiences to delight in their deaths, so it has a bit of a different vibe than many slashers. Rosman also emphasizes suspense and mood, as the Theta Pi abode is transformed into a moonlit house of horrors, where danger creeps behind every corner and attic door. As the unseen killer hacks through the cast, a mystery also unfolds when Mrs. Slater’s body turns up missing. Has she somehow survived the prank and exacting revenge on the girls? Or is something even more bizarre occurring?

A wonderfully macabre answer lurks during a revelatory climax that ties together a cryptic prologue and a local doctor’s investigation into the slayings. Toss in a distinctive murder weapon (Mrs. Slater’s cane has a sharp edge, it turns out), and you have all of the ingredients for a terrific, underseen little gem.

Sorority Row (2009)

Of course, The House on Sorority Row must have been seen just enough to warrant someone appropriating its title during the last decade’s remake spree. By the time it bowed in 2009, it practically flew under the radar, virtually shielded from the pitchforks and torches by higher profile releases like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and even My Bloody Valentine. In doing so, it was among the easiest to go into with an open mind, especially since director Stewart Hendler and company take the faintest suggestion of the original and go off in their own direction. The “sorority prank gone awry” takes the form of an ultra skeezy staged date rape that quite frankly plays even more horribly now, then escalates into an accidental death when the prank’s target doesn’t realize he’s part of a gag, leaving one of the girls of Theta Pi dead and buried at the bottom of a well.

Her sisters—some of them haunted (Brian Evigan, Rumer Willis), some of them not so much (Leah Pipes)—at least make it through an entire year before receiving ominous texts on their graduation day. Someone knows what they did last school year, and they’re out to exact revenge in bloody fashion. Admittedly, the premise here is a bit more wide open: unlike the original, which narrows down to a small handful of suspects, this one tosses in plenty of red herrings and misdirection. Did the supposedly dead sorority sister survive after all? Or has her sister somehow discover how she died and looking to exact revenge? Perhaps it’s the guy who accidentally killed her since he’s lost it over the past year.

Whoever it is, rest assured that you’ll want them to hack through the cast with reckless abandon. Where the original film muted that slasher movie glibness, this one amps it up to 11, only it doesn’t do so with the tact or wittiness of something like Scream. Instead, it’s the tiniest bit too noxious, featuring unhinged caricatures masquerading as human beings, causing Sorority Row to teeter on the edge of slasher parody instead of capturing the real thing. And that’s fine, even if it’s not exactly my speed. Besides, Hendler does restrain it just enough to keep it on the right side of parody since Evigan is playing some semblance of an actual human—not that you should care too much about that sort of thing in a movie like this.

If it sounds like I’m going back and forth on Sorority Row, it’s because I’m still very much on the fence about it. While it delivers some pretty gnarly gore (via a tricked-out tire iron!), there’s something vaguely bland about it, and the mystery’s eventual resolution is a random bit of anticlimactic nonsense. I love that it features Carrie Fisher as the shotgun-toting house mother, but she’s literally the only memorable character in what is basically a glorified cameo. I suppose it does play a bit better now as opposed to 2009—back then, it was an also-ran after the terrific Friday and MBV reboots from that same year. Now, it feels like a more than decent offering from a genre that’s only grown more anemic since its release. I’d take a half-dozen of these things a year if they’d release them now, so maybe I should have appreciated what we got back then.

The verdict: The gals on the original Sorority Row throw the best parties, but the new generation of Theta Pi can be fun to hang around every once in awhile.
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